Monday’s Meditation: On Being In The Arena

April 29, 2013

This past weekend I attended the Seattle Poetry Grand Slam. As spoken word poetry goes, it was a night of unfiltered vulnerability, of spilling guts and insecurities and love on stage. It was poets spitting words of brilliance into a microphone, speaking the un-spoken, the hush-hushed– but not speaking so much as proclaiming, as orating with a bravado that’s achieved only when the subject of which one speaks originates from a place of ultimate authenticity. It was like watching twelve people unhinge their chest cavities as if they were cupboard doors and letting everyone in attendance peer inside.

A poetry slam is a competition. The poets receive scores assigned by five audience members turned spontaneous judges. One of those five happened to be my date for the evening. Sitting next to that proverbial paddle, flipped closer on the scale to either “good” or “bad” based on personal opinion alone was an odd experience. Granted, the slam manifesto– created whenever the slam itself was–prescribes that the judges be chosen at random, and that they rely precisely on their opinion when doling out scores. Still, the model caused me to ponder; we deem ourselves capable, qualified judges based on our possessing an opinion, but is that enough? Is it at all fair for me to sit here, lean back, twirl my hair when I please, and then critique you, poet?

I may find fault with your choice of shoes. I may despair your outfit. I may think your poem is good but your voice, it’s just a little bit annoying to my ears. I may think you could have done more, could have taken it further, or that you overdid it. I may wish I understood what the hell it was you were talking about, and I may say “that was a perfect poem if ever I’ve heard one.”

But until I’m up on that stage, until I’m standing on that rised platform, my voice, my every breath and sigh broadcasted though speakers, until I’m faced with the prospect of speaking my own pain and love and loneliness to an entire room full of strangers, and doing it with charisma, with just the right inflections and pauses and timing really is everything, until the day I stand up to recite a poem, which is really just a pseudonym for “myself,” or “everything and nothing at once,” until that day my opinion of you and your performance is meaningless. It’s without a speck of merit.

For you are daring greatly while I sit back and watch. And while I may conjure a hundred critiques, I cannot touch your daring.

Let us remember that in life, unlike in slams, we possess the right to critique only when we, too, are in the arena. And let us learn that the only feedback worth heeding comes from the people in the arena with us.

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